Start planning now to gather this year’s bounty
I make the rounds to my favourite plant patches, eagerly awaiting the appearance of the first leaves or flowers. Of these, there is none I enjoy more than the prairie’s first flower, the prairie crocus. As its furry, lavender-coloured flowers push their way through their blanket of dried grass, I can’t help but feel a childlike excitement, curiosity and playfulness.
Each plant has its own unique energy, and as each one emerges, I take time to feel its energy and to give thanks for all of the gifts that it offers.
In Manitoba’s rich, well-drained, deciduous woodlands, the rare bloodroot is the first to appear, its eight white petals and unique leaf a striking contrast to the stark forest floor. I find it hard to walk away from its delicate beauty, and so I sit, captivated, in its presence.
If you love to forage like me, this is the season to prepare for a summer’s worth of hunting and gathering.
“But wait!” you say. “Can’t foraging and wildcrafting be done any time? Why do I need a plan? Can’t I just walk into the woods and start filling my basket?”
When it comes to wild harvesting, the saying “you snooze, you lose” is particularly pertinent. Each plant has a best (and sometimes only) harvest time, depending on what it will be used for.
So what is the best way to prepare for those limited windows of opportunity?
First of all, you want to think about what you are most interested in or in need of harvesting this year. With over 1600 species of plants in Manitoba, you will never learn about them all in one year, so pick three to five and make it your goal to get to know them really well. If there is a plant growing in your back yard or local park that intrigues you, put it on the list. The more convenient and common a plant is, the more you will learn from it. If there is a health issue that you would like to treat with local plant medicines, add it to the list. If there are any other plant uses (e.g., cordage, natural dyes, fire-making) that you feel driven to explore, add them to the list, too. Many plants have multiple uses, so if you choose wisely, one species may cover several items on your list.
There are a few basics you will want to know about your chosen plants before we enter the harvest season. First, find out if they even grow in your area. If you want to get more intimate with devil’s club, for instance, Manitoba isn’t the place to do that. Look for what’s known as a “range map” or “range description” to find out where each of your plants grows. If the description or map for your chosen plant only includes coastal states and provinces, scratch that plant from your list and pick a different one. The Peterson field guides, National Geographic’s North American Wildlife and the NatureServe Explorer website (natureserve.org/explorer) are great resources for this purpose.
If you have particular plant attributes on your wish list – specific medicinal effects, culinary properties and so on – now is the time to find out which plants in your area possess them. Ask around, use the Internet or page through books. The Peterson field guides for edible and medicinal plants list plants by their properties in the back and are a great place to start.
Once you’ve narrowed things down to specific plants, you will need to know which part of the plant to use and when to harvest it.
Don’t expect to mark specific dates on your calendar. Part of the fun of learning about wild plants is learning their natural timeline. For example, “when oak leaves are the size of squirrel ears” is said to mark the appearance of morels, though in my area I’ve found the flowering of dandelions to be a more reliable indicator.
Depending on the year, spring may come any time between March and May, so be ready! If the flowering of maple trees reminds you that you want to make your own maple syrup this year, you’ve already missed the boat. Maple tree tapping begins when there is still snow on the ground (when nighttime temps are below freezing and daytime temps reach about 10°C), so have your buckets and taps ready to go.
Next, make sure you know what to do with your harvest! There is nothing worse than gathering gallons and gallons of maple sap only to have it go rancid on you within a couple days because you weren’t prepared to process it. Likewise, you don’t want to miss gathering something for fear it will spoil on you only to find out later that all you had to do was dry it. A mindful and successful harvest begins before you’ve even set foot outside the door.
It is also important to find out which habitats or growing conditions your plants prefer – right down to those most suitable for the purpose you’re harvesting the plants for. There’s no sense looking for cattails on dry hilltops or for dandelions in dense forests. And trying to make dandelion coffee from the tiny little roots growing in a tight lawn will leave you wondering who in their right mind came up with the idea.
If this all sounds overwhelming, remember you are only going to concentrate on three to five plants. Make notes that are easy and fun to refer back to. Write reminders like “dandelion roots” in the margins of your calendar around the time they should be harvested. Join the Winnipeg Urban Foraging Facebook group to find out what others in your area are up to. Or check out my Facebook page (Prairie Shore Botanicals) to find out what plants I’m currently focusing on.
You can begin scouting for harvesting sites any time. The winter stalks of burdock, stinging nettle and milkweed, for example, are all very easy to identify and, depending on what you want to do with them, may be harvested even in the winter. Old seed stalks make beautiful floral arrangements that can double as a reminder of the things you want to learn about in the coming months. So grab your snowshoes or rubber boots and explore your neighbourhood! It’s never too early to get in on the action!
The founder of Prairie Shore Botanicals, botanist Laura Reeves regularly shares her enthusiasm for wild edibles, wilderness skills, urban survival and disaster preparedness in courses, workshops and private consultations. Laura also sells sustainably wild-harvested herbs and is helping to restore 100 acres of tall grass prairie within the Manitoba Tall Grass Prairie Preserve. For more info, visit psbotanicals.com and like Prairie Shore Botanicals on Facebook.